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What’s happening in…Sao Paulo, the city of amalgams? by Fernando Galan

Hotel Unique, Sâo Paulo - Terrace and pool atop the building

The setting (physical and metaphysical)

The urban structure of Sao Paulo, which retains practically nothing of the original city founded by Spanish Jesuits in 1554, conditions and almost determines its sociological, and so artistic, functioning. This is the norm in the majority of large cities; but in this case the ‘Paulist’ structure is characterized by some very specific aspects. Sao Paulo, which rivals Mexico City as the world’s most populous metropolis, is in many ways actually an amalgam. It’s an amalgam of adjacent cities, each one with its skyscraper-filled downtown and its residential areas which it shares structurally with its neighbors. It could be called the Los Angeles of Latin America. The rugged terrain lends an added drama to its urban horizons, especially when the skyscrapers are situated on the tops of hills, as occurs with the celebrated Avenida Paulista. It’s an amalgam of social classes, which is reflected in the tracts of favelas and in the luxurious mansions that congregate in various central districts. It’s an amalgam of races, which makes it, for example, the city with the largest population of Japanese outside Japan. It’s an amalgam of colors, of sculptural forms in its well-known modern and contemporary architecture; of exuberant vegetation, which grapples (and manages) to establish itself amidst all the asphalt, concrete and glass… It’s an amalgam of individual artistic initiatives which haven’t managed to become organized or coordinated in any expected or desirable manner… And it’s an amalgam of much proclaimed insecurity on the part of its inhabitants (which I have never personally experienced), with a Brazilian character and hospitality that seem to me to be the most engaging anywhere. It’s an amalgam, finally, of many invisible cities amid one of the most overwhelming urban realities that I know…

MAM (Museo de Arte Moderna), ad for the anual exhibition Panorama of Brazilian Art - Promotional slogan: “Enter yelling I know what contemporary art is and win a discount for entry to MAM”

In the terrain of the arts we can continue to speak of amalgams: of resources and trends, of tradition and innovation, of crucibles of ‘native’ and international influences, of these influences with their own creative originality, of poetics and critiques, of reactionary conformism and radical breaks… Sao Paulo, like all of Brazil, but exponentially multiplied by its density of population, is one of the prototypes of mestizaje, or cultural hybridization. It’s home, for instance, to such artists as Sebastián Selgado and Ernesto Neto. The former is characterized by a committed social content via the format of traditional photography, and the latter by an intimate and creative poetics via experimentation with new forms and materials. And by Regina Silveira and Nelson Leirner, veteran artists that escape all categorization, both explorers of new invisible worlds with their feet firmly on the most tangential reality. Regina, who flees almost obsessively from both the conventional and the commercial, has created work that moves literally (and with surprising agility) between light and shadow, between the security of firm ground and the levitating weightlessness of air and the heights. Leirner, for his part, although he lives in Rio de Janeiro, has developed almost his entire artistic career in Sao Paulo (where, moreover, his gallery, Brito Cimino, is located), has produced work that, based upon the most tangible position from a formal perspective, he enters, and lets us follow him, into the most invisible aspects of the conceptual. Recall the piece he contributed to the 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial, a large, closed space, immaculately white and empty, where the public could hear the sounds of a ball in an imaginary game of tennis, that came alternately from both extremes and made us all turn our heads from side to side,,, towards the non-visibility of what we saw in our imaginations.

Sao Paulo seems to be that: what we see, what it suggests to us and what we imagine. Even in the strictest sense of the word urban, when we imagine the city’s continuation, both the favelas and the skyscrapers, beyond the hills and greenery which reach our physical perception. The main exhibition spaces, galleries and institutions, are widely scattered and it’s difficult to take in more than three or four a day, what with the prolonged taxi rides required amidst heavy traffic, despite the city counting on an ample system of avenues and expressways that cross it from one side to the other. Sao Paulo also enthralls us because we always have to leave before having had time to do everything we wanted to…

Regina Silveira, UFO Project (2006) - Urban intervention - Courtesy of the artist; Photo: Renato Pera


With a population estimated at 12 million for the city strictly speaking, and in 20.5 for the state of Sao Paulo (which, at 8,000 km2, is not much larger than the city), out of a total of 186 million for Brazil (with its 8.5 million km2 – remember that all of Europe has just 10,5 and the U.S. 9.6), the city produces the immense majority of the country’s artistic activities, including art, galleries and institutions. Brasilia, the purposely built capital (which I’ve never visited, absorbing as Sao Paulo always is), has become the emblem of the Brazilian utopia, mistreated by political, economic and social avatars who have plundered the nation for decades. All the galleries known for their active participation at international events and for representing world renown artists are located here. They’re all, however, far way from one another, and there exists no real neighborhood focused on art as in the majority of the world’s great cities. I’d cite Fortes Vilaça, located in a striking white cube in the neighborhood of Vila Madalena; Brito Cimino, with its large and functional space in Vila Olimpia; Vermelho, one of the youngest but which is forging a reputation for the rigor and quality of its shows, with a discetely impressive design that combines closed and open spaces in the Higienópolis district; the veteran Luisa Strina, near the Avenida Paulista; Casa Triángulo, with its new location in Itaim; and Nora Roesler, also with an ample space in Jardim Europa...


As for institutions, the most dynamic and with the most contemporary and international curatorial policy is the Pinacoteca del Estado de Sâo Paulo a state museum with a good historical collection of Brazilian art and two buildings located near the Estaçao da Luz train station. Another is the Paço das Artes a state entity found at the entrance to the University of Sao Paulo campus, with excellent programs featuring younger and more radical art along with educational apprentice programs aimed at young curators. The city-owned Centro Cultural Sao Paulo is also quite dynamic in many areas, but especially in the visual arts, besides it collection, it shows the newer generation of Sao Paulo artists.

Among private institutions, MAM (Museo de Arte Moderno) is like an extension of the celebrated Biennial building, the work of the iconic Oscar Niemeyer and Hélio Uchôa, located in the middle of Ibirapuera Park. Faithful to its name, its agenda comprehends modern as well as contemporary art, including the most timely and experimental, such as its annual Panorama of Brazilian Art exhibits, which features the most important national artists. MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) professes to having “the most important collection in the southern hemisphere,” with works by Rafael, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya, Monet and many other classics. It also has a good collection of modern and contemporary Brazilian photography, the Pirelli-MASP collection. But is been adrift for years, having undergone a controversial architectural reform, and with unqualified leadership, it acts at a remove from the most relevant areas of contemporary art, national and international, and has lost the prestige it once enjoyed. The Instituto Tomie Ohtake housed in a post-modern building inaugurated a few years ago and dedicated to the work of artists of Japanese origin, has a mixed program of contemporary Brazilian and international art, of a historic character, and a dynamic publications policy, courses and education for docents.

Hotel Unique, Sâo Paulo - Vista general; Cortesía de Hotel Unique

Two banks are leaders in the commitment of culture to the society which enriches them: Banco do Brasil and Itaú. The latter, ( with its three floors of exhibition space on the Avenida Paulista opts clearly for the most contemporary art and is an obligatory visit if you want to learn about the latest Brazilian art. Its two programs, Rumos and Panorama of Brazilian Art and Technology ( are good examples. With numerous departments, in addition to shows, it organizes symposia, publications, courses, and events of all kinds, and has its own collection. The cultural activity of the Banco do Brazil ( has a telling slogan: Art passes through here, though it’s exhibitions are more eclectic, embracing everything from archeology to contemporary art. It’s headquarters, an interesting building designed by Ernesto Pujol, includes exhibition space, a movie theater, auditorium and theater.

The University of Sao Paulo-USP is home to MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art), whose history, from the middle of the 60s on, encompasses the best and most radical Brazilian art. It enjoyed great prestige until recent years, when more academic than professional administrations steadily removed it from the most relevant national and international orbits. It has a good collection of Brazilian and foreign art, whose origin was a donation by Matarazzo in the 1950s. The Centro Universitario María Antonia, also belongs to the university, and defines itself as “a center for the discussion of new experiences in the areas of culture, the arts and human rights.” Its program is faithful to this ambitious mandate for an amalgam of activities: shows, classrooms, theater (for which it has a permanent space), concerts, classes, seminars, lectures… In recent years it has produced magnificent exhibitions of visual poetry, which is one of the strongest and most original Brazilian traditions.

We shouldn’t forget to mention the Fórum Permanente an initiative aimed at the debate around the current objectives and functioning of museums today, that, although it emerged in October of 2003 with a national orientation, has managed to incorporate numerous relevant professionals from all over the world. It was motivated by the idea that Brazil’s art scene was suffering under “a very unstable institutional context.” Also worth recalling is its art fair, Sparte, a private venture of Fernanda Feitosa’s that just finished celebrating its second edition. In a country with an artistic tradition and potential as strong as Brazil’s, it’s surprising that something like this hadn’t arisen earlier. It’s located in a splendid building belonging to the Biennial (Ibirapuera), and given the standards of its director, it’s a fair with a very promising future.

In addition to the system of museums and galleries, the Arts Map, a bi-monthly free pamphlet (see the continuously updated web page,, offers information especially focused on Sao Paulo’s art scene.

The Biennial
Sao Paulo leapt onto the international stage following the launch of its biennial, the oldest after Venice, with its first edition in 1951, and which is among those that kindle most interest. It’s 27th edition opens on October 8th, with Lisette Lagnado as curator, and whose motto will be How to live together. The event, which will remain open until December 17th, this year features a project in which 10 foreign artists will produce works specifically “inspired by Brazil’s political and human geography.” They’ll live as residents in the cities of Sao Paulo, Rio Branco and Recife, and as this goes to press Lara Almárcegu (Spain) and Franco Jodice (Italy) had already arrived.


We can’t talk about Sao Paulo without mentioning its architecture, as vigorous and imaginative as the country’s economic and human potential. MASP, with its futuristic (for its time) architecture, was conceived by the Italian architect Lina Bo and due to its technical audacity, (it’s a parallelepiped supported at its extremes by four pillars, with a space of 74 meters between each of them), its construction took 12 years to complete, from 1956 to 1968. But there’s a building that’s absolutely representative of the audacious imagination that characterizes the creative life of the city, and that is the recently opened Hotel Unique. The architectural design is by Ruy Othake, the decoration by Joâo Armentano; the landscaping by Gilberto Elkis; and the gastronomical offering by Emmanuel Bassoleil. Located beside the park of Ibirapuera, Othake based his design on the concept of public art. The display of bottles from the bar in the lobby which rises the entire six meters of the room’s height, is like an installation in and of itself. And its terrace seems to me the best place for our gaze to take in at a glance both the physical and metaphysical amalgams of the city. Especially at night, it’s one of the most spectacular and beautiful urban views that I know of anywhere in the world.

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